CHICAGO — Baseball has been the fabric of Lou Piniella’s life. For 48 years, first as a player and then a manager, his passion for the game was undeniable. You could usually see it on his face.
Piniella was an aggressive, sharp-eyed hitting outfielder and an often fiery, sometimes raging, manager who’d cooled his act for the most part as manager of the Chicago Cubs over the past three-plus seasons.
When his ailing mother needed his attention, though, Piniella decided it was time to leave sooner than he’d expected and go home to Florida to take care of her.
And after his final game at Wrigley Field on Sunday, his emotions ran over in his postgame news conference. Saying goodbye was difficult.
“I cried a little bit after the game. You get emotional. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be. This will be the last time I put on my uniform,” Piniella said Sunday with tears flowing and his voice cracking after the Cubs were routed by Atlanta 16-5 in his final game at Wrigley Field.
“It’s been very special.”
After Sam Fuld grounded into a game-ending double play, Piniella took off his cap and shook it in the direction of the Atlanta dugout, apparently to say goodbye to fellow retiring manager and friend Bobby Cox. Many in the crowd of 37,518 had already left Wrigley Field after the Cubs surrendered 11 runs in the final three innings.
“It’s a good day to remember and also it’s a good day to forget,” Piniella said.
Piniella said last month he planned to retire at the end of the season and reiterated his plans just Saturday. But he missed four games in August to be with his mom in Florida and decided this weekend his divided attention wasn’t helping anyone.
“She hasn’t gotten any better since I’ve been here,” said Piniella, who turns 67 on Saturday. “She’s had a couple other complications, and rather than continue to go home, come back, it’s not fair to the team, it’s not fair to the players. So the best thing is just to step down and go home and take care of my mother.”
Piniella’s final game led to a memorable scene when Piniella brought the lineup card to home plate and greeted Cox.
And Cox said he understood what a difficult situation Piniella was facing.
“It’s in your blood that long, but Lou’s mom is in ill health,” Cox said before the game. “It’s a sad day for me because I kept on thinking that Lou would be back, not here but somewhere else.”
Piniella and Cox shook hands after they reached the plate, hugged each other and exchanged back slaps as Piniella’s No. 41 was posted on the center-field scoreboard.
Cox was announced to the crowd and took his cap off and waved it to the fans.
Then the public address announcer ran down Piniella’s achievements as he stood at the plate, and scattered cheers of “Louuu” could be heard throughout the crowd.
After Piniella and Cox posed for a picture with the umpires, the managers hugged each other again. Piniella then headed to the dugout and, as the cheers got louder, took off his cap, waved it to the crowd and began to clap for the fans.
When Piniella made the first of three trips to the mound in the seventh inning to change pitchers, fans behind the dugout gave him a standing ovation as he came off the field and he acknowledged them with a little wave of his hand.
Third base coach Mike Quade was promoted to interim manager, getting the nod over bench coach Alan Trammell, who was thought to have been a candidate to succeed Piniella next season. But general manager Jim Hendry said Trammell was not going to be considered for the job, so Quade was selected to finish out the season.
Piniella met with his team to let them know he was leaving and it was very emotional, despite the Cubs’ terribly disappointing season — two years after they had the best record in the NL.
“I wish we would’ve played better for him,” reliever Sean Marshall said.
“You hate to see stuff like that. You hate to see a grown man kind of tear up like that, it just shows his heart for winning and his drive for baseball and his family.”
Piniella finished with an overall record of 1,835-1,713. He trailed only Tony La Russa, Cox and Joe Torre in victories among active managers.
Piniella’s record with the Cubs was 316-293. Under the mellowed skipper, Chicago won consecutive NL Central titles in 2007-08, but missed the playoffs last year and slipped back even further this season with a new owner, Tom Ricketts, in charge.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and had some success here, this year has been a little bit of a struggle,” Piniella said. “But, look. Family is important, it comes first.”
In 18 years in the majors as a player — he had a .291 career batting average — and another 23 as a manager, Piniella made five trips to the World Series and has three championship rings. He began his professional playing career in 1962.
Piniella began managing in 1986 with the Yankees and lasted three years, including a stint as general manager. He managed the Reds from 1990-92, leading them to a World Series championship in his first season. He also got national attention during his time there for a clubhouse wrestling match with reliever Rob Dibble, who downplayed the incident and said “we’ve been family ever since.”
“I think a lot of the antics — which don’t go away unfortunately thanks to our friends on TV … I think it distracts you from what basically he’s all about,” Dodgers manager Torre said. “And that’s being a winner. He’s had success pretty much everywhere he’s gone.”
After Cincinnati, Piniella had a long run in Seattle, where his teams won at least 90 games four times and 116 in 2001. The three-time manager of the year also spent three seasons in Tampa Bay’s dugout, but he questioned his hometown team’s commitment to winning at the time before the team bought out the final year of his four-year contract.
The Cubs won 97 games under Piniella in 2008, but were swept out of the playoffs for the second straight year and then missed the postseason a year ago despite a third straight winning season.
What Chicago fans saw for the most part was a more reserved Piniella, although he did have one dirt-kicking meltdown with umpire Mark Wegner early in his first season and soon thereafter the Cubs took off and eventually overtook the Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central in 2007.
Piniella joined the Cubs after doing some TV work, looking for a final challenge and hoping — like so many before him — that he would be the manager to bring the Cubs a long-awaited championship. The Cubs’ last World Series appearance came in 1945, their last World Series winner in 1908. It didn’t happen, despite the promising first two seasons.
There has been plenty to deal with over the past two seasons, including emotional players in Milton Bradley last season and former ace Carlos Zambrano this year.
“It’s a tough job. But, look. I mean. They’re going to win here. They’ve got a family-owned business now,” Piniella said.
“The Ricketts family is going to do what they need to do to get this thing to where it can win. They’re going to give it the care that it deserves. When I took this job I didn’t call anybody. I came here and did the best I could for as long as I’ve been here. That’s all you can do,” he added.
Piniella said he would look back later. He added that he has no future plans, other than to tend to his family and relax.
“I’ll have plenty of time to reflect, I will,” he said.
Rick Gano/The Associated Press